Where Things Stand: Quarter-Final Line-Up Tricky to Predict
The line-up of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship Quarter-Finals is impossible to predict as the league enters into the final weekend of the season following a weekend full of drama.
Leinster, Ulster, DHL Stormers and Glasgow will have home advantage in the Quarter-Finals, with Glasgow Warriors having secured a Scotstoun tie with Friday night’s hard-fought 12-9 victory over the Scarlets.
Munster, Connacht and the Vodacom Bulls will be on the road in the last eight, with the eighth-placed Cell C Sharks almost certain to join them given their points difference advantage over Benetton in ninth. But there are further twists to the tale.
The winner of the Welsh Shield – which will be decided by the Judgement Day clash between Cardiff and the Ospreys – will qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup, ahead of the eighth-placed Vodacom URC side.
And if either the Scarlets or Benetton win the Challenge Cup, they will qualify for Europe’s elite event in place of the team that finishes seventh in the Vodacom URC.
So, to be sure of making the Champions Cup, teams have to finish in the top six, adding extra jeopardy to the final round of matches.
Looking at the action over the weekend, Leinster maintained their unbeaten record this season with a last-gasp 39-36 victory away to the Emirates Lions, while Munster also won out in South Africa, beating the DHL Stormers 26-24 in one of the results of the season, with skipper Peter O’Mahony named Player of the Match.
That defeat for the Stormers means Ulster – who overcame the Dragons 40-19 – go into the last round in the all-important second spot, which would secure home advantage through to the Semi-Finals. And completing a full set for the Irish sides, Connacht defeated Cardiff 38-19 in Galway to book a Play-Off spot.
Modest record-breaker Stewart
Having set a new all-time try-scoring record for the Vodacom URC, Ulster hooker Tom Stewart was quick to pass the praise on to his team-mates. The 22-year-old claimed his second successive league hat-trick in the bonus-point victory over the Dragons at the Kingspan Stadium to pick up the Player of the Match award.
That took him to 16 Vodacom URC tries for the season, surpassing the previous record of 14 held jointly by wingers Tim Visser (Edinburgh, 2010-11) and Rabz Maxwane (Cheetahs 2019-20).
It’s been some effort from the uncapped Belfast boy who is the leading try scorer across Europe’s three major leagues. Yet he was modesty personified following his latest haul.
“Honestly, they were pretty easy tries out there,” he said.
“I don’t know if I can take credit for any of them. There were two maul tries where the boys up the front do the job and then there was that wee trick play where Ethan (McIlroy) ran a super line and there was support from (John) Cooney, Dave (McCann) and Jacob (Stockdale) and I just kind of dotted the ball across the line. I’m happy enough.”
However, Ulster coach Dan McFarland insists Stewart deserves full credit for his remarkable exploits. “Tom’s been brilliant. There is a skill to scoring tries off the back of a maul. Some of them are pretty easy, but some of them are pretty difficult and he’s worked hard for that,” he said.
“People think it’s just about dotting them down, but you need to read the timing when to break out of the back. He’s got a lot of decision-making to do and there’s a lot of skill in the execution.”
With the Stormers having lost at home to Munster, Ulster are now in pole position to finish second, with a home game against Edinburgh to come next weekend.
Looking ahead to that meeting with the Scots – who beat the Ospreys 45-21 on the weekend – McFarland said: “They have some real threats. They are a very dangerous team.
“They really enjoy playing in attack, they’ve got some strong running forwards and some really quick backs.”
The last word goes to try-machine Stewart, who said: “We are trying to focus on keeping the ball alive and keeping it quick so space opens up.
“We need to nail our standards because we let them slip at times against the Dragons.
“There were a couple of errors out there, I had a few errors myself. The boys just need to tidy up with some stuff and come together as a group and solidify on a few things around defence and then we willl be good to go.”
Match of the weekend
Cell C Sharks 43, Benetton 33
This was some way to start the weekend, with 11 tries in all on Friday evening in Durban. The first two of those were notched early on by Benetton who raced into a 14-0 lead after just six minutes with Italy stars Sebastian Negri and Ignacio Brex crossing. But the hosts fought back to make it all square at the break and managed to keep their noses in front through the second half. There were two touchdowns apiece for Springboks wing Makazole Mapimpi and seriously rapid scrum-half Grant Williams as the Sharks remained on course for the Play-Offs, while pretty much ending Benetton’s hopes of finishing in the top eight.
Reflecting on a contest where his team were pushed all the way, Sharks director of rugby Neil Powell said: “I’ve got a lot more grey hairs after that! It’s a game where we made it extremely difficult for ourselves. But the goal was to get five points and we did that.”
Player of the weekend
Sam Prendergast (Leinster)
Having taken a starring role in Ireland’s U20s Six Nations Grand Slam, the young fly-half marked his Leinster debut with a Player of the Match display in the 39-36 victory over the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg.
He landed six shots at goal, including the last-minute penalty which secured the spoils as the Irish province made it 17 games unbeaten in the Vodacom URC this season.
Commenting on his big day at the ground long known as Ellis Park, the 20-year-old said: “It’s a huge honour to make your professional debut in a stadium that is just full of history.
“We talked about that during the week, about how rich the history is around here and it’s unbelievable to make my debut here. I heard a lot about altitude, but I didn’t think it was going to be that tough. But it is unbelievable to get the win, it was just crazy.”
Quote of the weekend
Retiring Glasgow flanker Ryan Wilson to his team-mates after the 12-9 victory over the Scarlets: “Don’t ever take it for granted boys because you don’t know when your last time in this jersey is going to be. It’s special. So boys, thanks very much for everything.”
The final weekend shake-up
It really will be Judgement Day at the Principality Stadium next Saturday as Cardiff and Ospreys go head to head, with the Welsh Shield and Heineken Cup qualification for the Champions Cup on the line.
Dai Young’s Cardiff have a four point lead over Toby Booth’s men and can’t be overtaken in terms of wins, so the Ospreys will have to record a bonus point victory while denying their opponents a losing bonus to take the Shield and all that goes with it.
It will be the second game of the day at the iconic ground with the Dragons locking horns with the Scarlets to kick things off.
Elsewhere in Round 18, Ulster entertain Edinburgh looking for the win that would secure second spot and home advantage through the quarters and semis in the Play-Offs.
Meanwhile, the Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks are home to Leinster and Munster looking for victories that would increase their chances of Champions Cup qualification, with rivals Connacht away to Glasgow.